HAVANA TIMES — There are practically no Cubans alive today who once directly enjoyed the one time Cuba has participated in a world soccer championship (in 1938, France), but the island still experiences strong passions during the World Soccer Cup.
Since the 1990 Cup, the Caribbean island has benefitted from a financial agreement with the Organization of Latin American Television Broadcasters (OTI), an agreement that has entitled it to televise the great majority of World Cups held since, live.
This transforms the island into a hotbed of soccer passions every four years. In the last four years, Cuban television has aired championship league games in Europe and followed the most prestigious domestic competitions in that continent.
Because of this, and the fact that top level baseball games from around the world began to be aired in Cuba only recently, the new generations of Cubans began to develop greater inclinations towards soccer than baseball, to the point that the management of the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT), taking note of this, first took some timid steps to secure authorization from Major League Baseball to air their games and, later, convinced that such authorization would never arrive, began to air more and more MLB games anyhow.
Of course, these aren’t broadcast live and Cuban television does not air any games with Cuban players, which is why the competition with soccer games continues to be unbalanced.
“They take so long to find a game without any Cuban players, and it’s more and more difficult, because of the number of our players moving up to the Major Leagues, whereas, as far as soccer is concerned, we can all see Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on TV every day. They’re never going to be able to compete with soccer this way!” a baseball aficionado was saying to me recently.
The issue merits a broader debate. Getting back to the World Cup, Cuba is experiencing a rather special month, in which the majority is divided between support for Argentina or Brazil. There are also many fans of Spain, Germany, Italy and Holland, however.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Cuba took part in the 1938 Cup by a fluke – several countries in the Caribbean didn’t show up for the qualifying matches and Cuba was invited to participate. That said, the island fared rather well, defeating Romania and ending up in 7th place.
Since then, the island has accumulated many failures and disappointments, and Cubans have no choice but to enjoy the performance of teams from across the seas.
In 1982, Cuba came close to being selected to take part in the Cup, but ended up two points away from getting its ticket. Peruvian expert Miguel Company was hired for the 2006 Cup, which is when Cuban soccer has shone the brightest.
With such a bad record under its belt, Cuba was pitted against Costa Rica (which had participated in the previous World Cup). Costa Ricans were unable to win any of the matches against Cuba, but moved on to the next round thanks to the goals they secured in Havana – and didn’t stop until making it to the Cup again, held in Germany that year.
Things have gone from bad to worse since, even though the reins of the team have been passed on to other foreign coaches, something which had been practiced in Cuba since the 70s (though, back then, coaches came from the former socialist bloc).
Last year, Cuba managed to qualify for the Cup for the first time, under the sub-20 category (the one immediately following the top), and even though the team’s performance in Turkey wasn’t good, the mere fact of having made it that far was excellent news.
The poor quality of domestic tournaments, the lack of training, restrictions which make it impossible for Cuban soccer players to play abroad and the constant desertion of players are heavy burdens that keep the imagination flying low.
THE 2014 BRAZIL CUP
Cuba is yet another country among the 209 members of the International Soccer Federation (FIFA), of which only 32 are currently in Brazil. All countries absent from the tournament experience the Cup as they can, and Cuba is no exception to this.
In addition to the live broadcast of all the Cup’s games (with the exception of one or more of overlapping games), different initiatives are being implemented to stir up World Cup fever.
As is the case throughout the year when European league games are underway, the city’s private bars and cafeterias take advantage of the moment to fill up their coffers. Today, other institutions are also joining in.
Four years ago, Havana tried out the idea of using movie theaters to broadcast the games and it was a huge success. The renowned Yara cinema interrupted its regular programming several times in June and July of 2010 to broadcast soccer games, and the final between Spain and Holland filled up the theater, which charged a 20-peso admittance.
The initiative is being implemented again and other venues are joining in. One of them is the Salon Rosado de la Tropical, which offered a live broadcast of the Cup’s opening match on a gigantic screen for 10 Cuban pesos. Things weren’t left there, for the hosts organized competitions among participants to maintain their enthusiasm before, during and after the game.
Similar initiatives are also being seen outside Havana, but mostly in hard-currency locales.
TO EACH HIS OWN
The opinions one hears at some of these venues around Havana are truly diverse. Below are a number of them:
“I am a fan of Brazil, but the team hasn’t really shone yet. I think its main rival is pressure. The ghost of the Maracanazo is still haunting it, and this generation of players will have to put on its pants to get over it. Last year, they won the Confederaciones Cup, but that’s not the same thing,” said Ariel, a fan wearing Brazil’s yellow-green uniform at La Pelota, a cafeteria located at the heart of Vedado which is actually dedicated to baseball fans, but cannot shut its doors to the country’s current soccer fever.
“The thing is, when it played at the Confederaciones Cup, Brazil was doing terribly. They had just replaced the coach and they didn’t have the pressure they have now. After they won, they became more popular and now the people of Brazil ask for nothing less than the Cup,” Raysan adds.
“I am a fan of Argentina,” Reynaldo says, cutting in. “But they haven’t started out too well either. This has to be Lionel Messi’s Cup, Argentina is nothing without him. He scored one hell of a goal in the first match, but, generally speaking, they played poorly, they have to improve.”
Yoan approaches and has no need to state who he roots for: from his jersey, one immediately knows he is a fan of Germany. “What about my soldiers? They swept Portugal completely away, Cristiano and all, and you haven’t seen anything yet.”
“I’m with Italy. We’re there again, without making any fuss about it. Every time Italy goes out to the field, it walks away victorious, so, watch out!” Marcelo warned, turning to a buddy and saying: “You’re not going to say anything?”
“What d’you expect me to say? They did me over the very first day, but don’t forget who the champion is. At the last Cup, we also lost the first match and, at the end, we walked away with the Cup. Spain is coming back for another fight, and if they make it to the second round, I pity anyone who crosses their path!”
These are a few of the opinions one hears on the street, where you also come across fans of Holland and France (though in smaller numbers). Generally speaking, these are the teams most people root for in Cuba, where the World Cup is enjoyed from a distance.